Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Needle Felting is a relatively new craft . Although it is easy and fun to do, crafters are just beginning to see the potential both for 3d sculpture and embellishment of garments and accessories. In marketing my needle felting wool packs I find that many knitting stores may carry some needle felting tools, but not a lot. Some of the knit shop owners are offering classes, but many do not and this limits their potential felting customers.

I have taught a few classes based on my own patterns and find that the students love the class, both for the fun project, but also the conversation and connection with other crafters. Each student puts their own twist on a project and it is lots of fun to see the different end results.

How do I market my needle felting wool packs? Cold calls to knit stores. When my daughter was in the high school band, I volunteered in the band booster program and was in charge of an auction fundraiser. In order to get donations and sell tickets, I made hundreds of phone calls to businesses and people in the community. This experience was great practice for me and now I feel very comfortable cold calling fiber stores and describing my products to them.

I find it interesting those activities we do in life, even though seemingly very unrelated, can cross over and give us skills or opportunities we didn’t even know we needed. So when your kids come home from school complaining about “why should I learn the stuff in this class, I will never use it again”, tell them not to be so sure about that!

The photos are of needle felted items I have made. For some I have written the patterns, others I just made up as I went along and haven't made again. Writing patterns requires quite a bit of experimentation and repetition.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Needle Felting Wool: product development, a business story

In the summer of 2009 I was looking through a packaging catalog, you know the ones with boxes and tape and packing peanuts. Anyway, I had a thought that my dyed wool would look really good in a clear plastic box and I also knew that the craft of needle felting was growing. After discussing the idea with my brilliant business partner (my husband), we decided to launch a new product- Needle Felting Wool Packs.

I started by testing the felting characteristics of the dyed wool and doing lots of online research. The wool that I purchase to produce my spinning product, Potluck Roving™ worked perfect for needle felting. Next was deciding on packaging. I found a company on-line who offered plastic boxes and contacted them about a recyclable product. Many containers on the market are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) which contains some toxic chemicals and has very low recyclability. PET plastic (Polyethylene-terephthalate) is much less toxic in production and it can be recycled. So I spent more on packaging and ordered boxes made of PET. I’ve also made sure to put the recycling information on my labels. This raises the production cost of the wool packs, but I feel it is a more responsible choice.

Dyeing the combed wool is challenging since to get an even color you must use dying techniques, like stirring the dye pot, which can lead to felting of the wool. Some of my dyes would “break” and make blotches of different color on the wool. Many dyes are combinations of colors which attach to the wool at different temperatures while the water in the pot is heating. But after much, and I mean a huge amount, of experimenting; I got 25 colors which dye well.

Most if not all of the commercial wool on the market for needle felting is dyed first and then combed into “top”. Wool top is a long rope like preparation of carded and then combed fiber. The combing takes all the crimp or waviness out of the wool and makes it more difficult to felt. It is recommended that you condition the wool if it is combed before needle felting by steaming or wetting the fiber to return the crimp. My dying process actually conditions the combed top by dying after combing and returning the crimp to the wool.

Once I had colors of dyed wool and a nice box the combinations of colors had to be put together. I found that seasons of the year and holidays were good themes along with packages of similar color shades. So 12 multicolor boxes emerged and went to market. You can see them at www.ferndalefiber.com

Next blog post- marketing the product

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Animals over the years

Over the years we have had many wonderful animals live with us. We have been lucky in that most have been healthy and lived long happy lives. I thought I would share some photos. Some are older friends no longer with us, some are just older and still running around the farm.

Our first Great Pyrenees; Luke

One of many Cats: Leroy

Sheep in the Snow

Buddy the Sheep, eating show. Sheep love to eat snow.

One of our Pygmy goats: Max

Our second Great Pyrenees: Wilson, the day we brought him home.

Wilson's first snow.

Sleepy kitten: Jade

Lamb photos, lambs are just too cute.

Two of many chickens. The Bald Eagles kept taking the chickens so now they live in a nice roomy chicken coop with a house.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The story of Potluck Roving™


In January of 2006 I found a distributer of mill ends from Brown Sheep Yarn Company. These mill ends were loose fiber left over from their carding process. I remembered that Brown Sheep Yarn Company had produced a roving call the “Beast” made from carding mill ends and spinners, including myself, really liked it. They called it the “beast” because it was carded on an old big card called the beast.

Eventually Brown Sheep stopped making Beast roving. I think it had something to do with a breakdown of the card and age of the card master. So they started selling the carding mill ends.

My goal was to play with these mill ends on my big card and see what I could do with them. The fiber was very nice, a mix of wool and mohair in a huge variety of colors. Since my source provided the mill ends unsorted, I never knew what colors I would get. The term Potluck came from this uncertainty of colors, similar to a Potluck party- you never know what you will get.

Some of my first colors.

As I continued to produce this early Potluck Roving™ by blending various colors on my card I started to get a growing customer base and felt that I needed a more consistent color and fiber source. After a long search I found a wool broker who would supply me with white wool combed top which was USA grown, very soft and of consistent quality. However, I had to purchase large quantities of this wool with each order. A bit scary to lay out all the money in the hopes I could make a product and sell it on a large scale!

more early colors.

One of the things I’ve learned with starting a business is that risks are a necessary part of growth. What I don’t do is jump blindly. Lots of research and discussions with my business savvy husband precede new products. But, it’s still scary.

Combed Top- this is fiber that has been washed, carded and combed into a long rope like preparations which has all the vegetation and short fibers removed. The combing process also straightens out the crimp of the wool fibers and makes them all parallel and smooth. My dying process restores the crimp (waviness) of the wool and the re-carding results in a more random arrangement of the wool fibers, a fuzzy roving. Carded roving is much easier to spin since it is not so slippery so it is great for beginning spinners. As far as I know I am the only processor to reverse process combed top back into carded roving.

I started dying fiber and developing color combinations. This was fun. There were lots of muddy combinations, but also some wonderful surprises with color combos that I thought would be horrible together and came out fantastic. The challenge was to break out of my color comfort zone and use colors I am not fond of.

Then I had to market this new product. Cold calls to spinning shops were necessary and although not fun at first, I got used to it. (This calling experience came in handy later on as I coordinated a charity auction for the Ferndale Marching Band and had to request donations from many, many, many people and companies. By then I had no fear of cold calls.)

As I write this I have 16 colorways in Potluck Roving™ and it is selling in five states.

Purple Haze and Party Time- 2 popular colors

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fleece to Fabric

Sorry about this post being so long, I just couldn’t help going into teacher mode.

I truly believe that wool is a miraculous fiber. It grows on sheep each year and we get to enjoy the company of sheep while this happens. Sheep are actually quite smart- at being a sheep. They have well develop predator avoidance instincts which make them appear less than “smart” as compared to other predatory species like dogs. But I digress; I want this post to be a description of how wool from a sheep becomes cloth.

The type of wool you get from a sheep depends on the breed of sheep. I have read that there are over 190 different breeds of sheep around the world. Each breed has come from people breeding the animals to select specific characteristics, fineness or coarseness of the wool, quality of meat, mothering abilities, disease resistance, etc..

Wool can be so soft that babies can wear it next to the skin, or so coarse that it holds up in rugs for many years. Wool has crimp or waves in the fiber which give it “memory” to return to its original shape. This allows us to knit garments which continue to fit for years. As long as we don’t change our shape ;)

Some sheep grow wool so long that they need shearing 2 times per year, but most get a haircut once per year. This shearing process is normally not too stressful for the sheep because skilled shearers know how to place the animal and can shear quickly and carefully. My sheep seem to remember the routine after a few times and just relax during the process. Plus, I have a really good shearer!

One of my black sheep being sheared.

The quality of the fiber is determined by many factors, the health of the animal, the timing of shearing, the skill of the shearer, and the skill of the shepherd during the year in keeping vegetation out of the wool.

Once the wool or ”Fleece” is off the sheep it is “skirted” which is basically a sorting and discarding process. The name comes from taking the dirty, poopy, contaminated edges or “skirt” of the fleece off the good parts of the fleece.

Family helping with skirting. It was rainy so we did it inside the shop.

The fleece then needs to be washed which is called “scouring”. This involves soaking the wool in very HOT water with soap to dissolve the lanoline off the fiber. For commercial operations all the lanolin is removed before further processing otherwise it would gum up the machines. Large processors can extract the lanolin, purify it and then it is used in all kinds of products ranging from rust preventative coatings to cosmetics to lubricants.

Scouring removes the grease (lanolin) from the fleece and most of the dirt, but it doesn’t remove any vegetation that is tangled in the fibers. Sheep acquire hay, seeds and other debris over the course of the year in their wool. The less of this vegetation in the fiber, the better the quality yarn and fabric.

Wool on the drying racks.

The wet wool is dried and then “picked”. Picking is the process of opening up the locks of fiber. It can be done by hand or by machine. I use a machine. As the locks are opened, debris falls out and the wool looks like fluffy cotton candy.

My Picker, designed and built by genius husband, Dave.

If the wool is going to by dyed, it can be done before picking and the fiber is said to be “Dyed in the Wool”. Of course yarn can be dyed and so can fabric, but the highest quality and best color comes from dying in the wool.

Now its time for carding the wool. Commercial carding is the process of using a machine with rolls covered in wire “brushes” (basically it looks like the rolls are coved with the ends of thousands of staples) to brush the wool, open up the fibers further and somewhat align them. Sort of like brushing your hair. If you have ever seen a dog slicker brush, that is what the carding surface looks like. Of course it is more complicated than this explanation, there are different gauges of wire, different types, and the distances between carding rolls must be adjusted depending on the type of fiber being carded.

Dyed picked wool on the in-feed of the card.

When we purchased our card which was built in 1925, we had no idea how to set up all the rolls. I searched out old carding manuals on Ebay and those helped us to set up the machine. There was also some trial and error involved in the beginning.

Dyed wool coming off the card as Roving. The roving maker is another Dave design.

Commercial carding for hand spinning results in a long thick or thin (depending on machine) ropelike collection of wool called “Roving”. The wool fibers are arranged somewhat randomly, not parallel so hand spinners can spin a fluffy “woolen” yarn. Further processing the roving in a combing machine results in “Combed Top” which aligns the wool fibers parallel to each other, eliminated all debris and stretches out the crimp of the fiber. Spinners can then spin a smooth “worsted” yarn from combed wool top. Commercial processors for the non-hand spinning market have other terms for the products coming off of the card- “pencil roving” or “sliver” (pronounced with a long “i” not like “river”).

One thing I notice quite often is the confusion between “roving” and “combed top” or “top”. Shops and their customers confuse the two and new spinners often don’t know what product they are purchasing or how to spin it.

Hand spinning involves taking the roving and twisting it into the thickness of single ply yarn that you want. You can accomplish this many ways, by rolling the fiber on your leg, by a simple spindle that you twirl, or on a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel comes in many varieties and is designed for different types of fiber or end yarn. (I won’t even begin to discuss plant fibers here, cotton, linen, etc.) Many wheels are versatile these days and will allow you to spin just about anything.

I use an electric wheel to save my arthritic knees, but the hand motions are the same only the power is different.

Some of my hand spun yarn.

Once you have yarn singles, then it can be plyed with other strands to make it stronger or thicker. It really depends on your end use of the yarn. Of course yarn is then used in knitting, crochet, needle point and weaving.

Weaving at its most basic is taking yarn and passing strands over and under each other. The Loom allows weavers to make more complicated patterns by raising and lowering Warp threads so that Weft threads can be passed between them. The number of types of looms is huge and each culture around the world came up with their own unique twist on the loom to serve their needs.

Front of the loom, you can see the cloth with the shuttle holding the weft thread.

The back of the loom, showing warp threads which go through "heddles" which can be lifted to lift the warp threads.

Our wool mill only processes wool to the roving stage, we do not commercially spin yarn or weave cloth. However, I spin yarn and weave for my own fun. I find spinning very calming and meditative, while weaving involves lots of math and calculations of yardage and thread interlacements. Weaving appeals to my scientific/math brain.

So this is the very simplified description of how wool gets from fleece to fabric. If you read this whole long post, Wow! Hopefully, I’ve not made too many errors and have conveyed some new information.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Large equipment

It was off to Mt. Jefferson OR, for Dave and his father, Larry during the heat of August to tear apart and move literally TONS of wool equipment.

The card was built in 1925 by Davis and Furber in Massachusetts, it came to Oregon on ship, "around the horn" and had been operating in Mt. Jefferson for 50 years. The difficulty in moving this big machine was partly due to it's size, one section weighs 9 tons, and partly due to the doorway not being big enough. Part of the building had been built after the card was in place.

Dave's Dad, Larry with one section of the card.

Same part of the card just outside the door. Notice the step-up the card had to go. Lifting inside the mill was all done with floor jacks and pipe was used to roll the machine along the floor.

Here is all the equipment we purchased loaded onto two Semi trucks. It traveled from Mt. Jefferson to Bellingham, about 350 miles along I-5, naked, with no tarps. This was on the advice of the truck drivers due to all the sharp parts on the machine. Good thing it didn't rain.

We have a long skinny gravel driveway and the large trucks could not get to our place. Dave had them go to a freinds business with a large unloading area and drop off the equipment. We then rented another smaller (but still big) truck to drive it home. Oh, also we had to rent a large fork lift.

Unloading day arrived and I had the flu. Dave and our son Andy were excited, they both love big equipment.

Tarp covered Card coming up the drive way. Our Great Pyrenees dog, Luke, watches.

Dave on the fork lift, Andy offering advice as he lifts the card off the truck in front of the shop.

Dave and I, happy to have the card inside safely.

So the big questions: how do we run this big machine and how to make it do what we want?

The first step was cleaning, lots of old wool and bug from the drive in the carding cloth. (Carding cloth is the material that covers the rolls. Simple description -leather with thousands of sharp thin metal wires poking out.) Then adding electricity and computer controls. We then had to design, and Dave had to build, attachments to fit on the end of the card which would allow us to produce a hand-spinning product, "Roving" and to produce large "batts". All that took about 3 months.

I found old books on carding and Davis and Furber equipment on Ebay. They gave us the information on setting up the distances between the rollers. Dave researched and designed the attachments, a roving maker and Batt winder.

Here is the infeed belt with colored wool going in.

This is the roving maker with the striped roving being made off the end of the card.

The batt maker in action. Batts made are about double bed size.

Next post will be a description of the process, from fleece to roving.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Too Much Fiber

After starting Ferndale Fiber processing, in 1999, I had a back log of 9 months of custom processing. What to do, get a bigger boat, er Card.
BTW the machine used for carding wool is call a "CARD" the person operating the machine is the "CARDER". So began my online research to find a larger machine. Lots of old equipment on the east coast, but heavy and difficult to ship.

Out of the blue (this is the summer of 2000) we get a phone call from the plant manager at Mt. Jefferson Woolen Mill in Oregon. We had met him while doing research on starting a wool mill and had visited the mill. This nice man had given us about a 2 hour tour of their mill. They were processing wool from the washed state through dying, carding, spinning, weaving and fulling the cloth. They made the fabric for the US Forest Service green wool uniforms, felt for lettermans jackets and the black/red check Filson outdoor coats. The mill had been in operation for about 50 years and was being closed down by their corporate headquarters. They had all their equipment for sale, including two carding lines.

Mt Jefferson Woolen Mill, just east of Salem, OR

Mill worker at the spinning frame. The white rolls with "strings" are actually the end of the card showing the "pencil roving" being made and coiled on long bobbins.
(I guess I'll have to make a post with wool mill terminology and definitions!)

This equipment was way, way, way bigger than our planned size increase, but who could pass up this opportunity. We made a ridiculously low offer on one of the carding lines plus other misc. equipment. Our thought was that we would drop the other un-needed equipment off the bid for negotiating if they didn't like our offer. At the last minute before faxing in the offer, Dave told me to cut the dollar amount in half. Totally freaking scary because by now we really wanted that carding line.

The end result- they accepted the bid as it was, low price and all equipment. The only stipulation was that we had to come dismantle the machinery and move it- we had two months....

Friday, February 5, 2010

In the beginning

People often ask how we started in the wool processing business. I'm not really sure... actually it happened after I left a previous career as a biology instructor and got a little idea in my brain. Or should I say an idea in my little brain. Dave and I discussed the idea and decided research was the first order of business.

We visited every processing mill we could find within driving distance. I got on line and researched machines with companies on the east coast. Turns out that there were a couple of manufacturers of "cottage industry" wool mill machinery, and there was a huge amount of old industrial mill equipment-all on the east coast.

Starting small seemed the best idea. Dave, being in food processing all his working life, thought that industrial machinery would be best. We found that the big mills had a machine called a "sample card" which was a miniature (to them) carding machine on which they tested color blends in very small quantities. To us a sample card looked like a great way to get started with a small investment.
So I bought one from a dealer in Maine based on photos. It came and of course wasn't usable to produce a spinning product because it had no collection attachment for making either a batt or roving. Thank goodness for Dave's mechanical skills. He modified the little card and we were processing.


One other problem- fiber needs to be "picked" before carding. I had a hand operated picking device that proved to be very time consuming and hard on the body. In steps Dave's fabricating abilities and he built a mechanical picker. Heaven!


The next problem- too much fiber. When word got out that I was doing custom fiber processing, I had a nine month backlog within the first 2 months!
Stay tuned for more of the saga...